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On the road again - a delightful bargain

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THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St. (212) 244-PLAY. Through Jan. 8.

IT mustn't be easy to compete with the mem ories of Geraldine Page's Oscar-winning turn in the 1985 film version, but actress Lois Smith creates magic of her own in this touching production of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful."

As Carrie Watts, the unhappy, elderly woman who embarks on a dangerous road trip to revisit her childhood home, the veteran actress delivers a performance that is at once heartbreaking in its pathos and uplifting in its spirit. She's but one of the reasons to see this Signature Theatre Company revival that, thanks to corporate support from Time Warner, is being offered at the bargain price of $15 a ticket.

Set in Texas circa 1953, the story begins in the cramped Houston apartment of Ludie (Devon Abner) and his wife, Jessie Mae (Hallie Foote), also occupied by Ludie's mother, Carrie (Smith). With Ludie struggling to make things work on his low salary and the two women constantly at odds, family tensions are strained to the breaking point, until one day Carrie impulsively decides to hop on a bus to the town of Bountiful, where she grew up and about which she has idyllic memories.

As her worried son frantically tries to track her down, Carrie embarks on her journey, in which she meets a friendly younger woman (Meghan Andrews) whose husband has just been sent to fight in Korea. Losing her purse, she winds up spending the night in a bus station, where she is nearly prevented from achieving her goal by a concerned sheriff (Jim Demarse). By the time she makes her way to her former home, the ravaging effects of the passage of time have become far too obvious.

Foote's play is a marvel of economy, one in which numerous important themes are conveyed through the simplest of situations and dialogue. Every character, from the indomitable Carrie to the brusque but kindly sheriff, is rendered with a moving depth of humanity. By play's end, even Jessie Mae, initially depicted as an irritatingly self-absorbed nag, is shown in a more complex light.

Director Harris Yulin has staged the piece expertly. But the evening ultimately belongs to Smith. Whether conveying a positively girlish excitement while sharing remembrances with her newfound friend or a poignant sense of loss as she realizes that the people and home she loved are no longer there, the actress seems to sum up the entire human experience in her memorable performance.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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